Assembly revives invocation policy

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly revived its controversial invocation policy during a reconsideration vote at its Tuesday meeting.

The assembly passed an amendment at its Nov. 22 meeting deleting the entire policy it had passed in October, which set guidelines for who would be allowed to provide the prayer given before the regular assembly meetings. However, at the end of the meeting, assembly member Blaine Gilman filed for reconsideration, which brought the topic up again for discussion at the Tuesday meeting.

With assembly member Willy Dunne absent, the other eight members of the assembly split the vote on the amendment deleting the policy that was up for reconsideration. When the vote is tied, a motion fails, so the amendment deleting the policy failed, reverting the policy back to the one the assembly passed in October.

That policy lays out a set of criteria for anyone wishing to give an invocation. The person must be part of a religious group that meets regularly for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective or be a chaplain that serves fire departments, law enforcement agencies, hospitals or other similar organizations. The assembly president designates someone to give an invocation.

The policy is also one the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the borough over. The organization advocates for civil liberties, frequently through litigation, and sent a letter to the borough on Oct. 20 asking it to drop the invocation policy because it prevents people not part of a religious group or whose groups do not pass the criteria from participating.

Gilman, one of the original sponsors of the policy that passed in October, defended it as open to all religious groups, including atheistic and humanist groups. The goal was to prevent political groups from giving invocations, he said. Having a policy in writing will help keep it open if an assembly president who is less open to all religions should ever be elected, he said.

“A president could be up there who wasn’t so inclusive,” he said. “That’s not good policy for the assembly. Things need to be in writing. And we shouldn’t be afraid to have our policy in writing.”

Assembly President Kelly Cooper, a cosponsor on the amendment passed Nov. 22 that would have changed the language to include groups that meet to share “an interest or belief that is very important to the attendees,” urged assembly members to support the amendment that deleted the entire policy. The policy that the assembly enacted in October excluded individuals and groups that don’t fit the definition, she said.

“This policy would even exclude Jesus Christ from being able to give us an invocation,” Cooper said. “I can’t reconcile how this exclusive policy serves the assembly or our residents.”

Because Dunne, who has been a vocal opponent of the policy, was absent and assembly member Paul Fischer attended by phone, assembly member Gary Knopp tried to postpone the vote to the Jan. 3 meeting. However, the policy’s supporters refused, voting against the motion to postpone.

The assembly was tied 4-4 in their re-vote on the amendment that deletes the policy, with Cooper, Knopp, Fischer and assembly member Brandii Holmdahl of Seward voting to keep the amendment. Knopp tried to ask for reconsideration at the end of the meeting, but assembly policy prevents an issue that has just been reconsidered from being immediately reconsidered again, regardless of the outcome.

More two dozen people filled the seats at the assembly chambers to get the chance to weigh in on the issue, which has been ongoing for months. Commenters called in from Homer, all six of whom opposed reconsidering the policy. The people who spoke in person at the assembly chambers had differing views on the issue, with some opposing any kind of invocation, others opposing the policy, some supporting the policy and still others speaking generally in favor of the presence of God in public meetings.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said during his comments at the end of the meeting that he planned to bring forward a budget appropriation at the next meeting to transfer funds to the legal department because of legal challenges to the policy. It would not increase the budget, and if there are no challenges to the policy, the funding will lapse at the end of the fiscal year, he said.

“It’s not because I want to spend money on this issue,” he said. “It’s because as mayor and administrator of this borough, I have a responsibility and a duty to uphold, whether I agree with them or not, the ordinances and policies of the assembly. It’s not because I want to spend money on it, it’s because I believe we will see some challenges on it.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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